(Reuters) - U.S. Navy special forces shot dead three Somali pirates on a lifeboat off Somalia and freed American cargo ship captain Richard Phillips on Sunday in a dramatic end to a five-day standoff, officials said.
Here are answers to some key questions about the incident, mainly from information provided to reporters by Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, head of the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet.
HOW DID THE NAVY END THE STANDOFF?
Navy SEALs, elite special operations troops, on the USS Bainbridge shot dead the pirates in the lifeboat after the Bainbridge's captain determined that Phillips' life was in imminent danger because a pirate pointed an AK-47 rifle at him.
Navy sailors then sailed to the lifeboat in a small inflatable craft and rescued Phillips, who was tied up inside the 18-foot-long lifeboat. He was later transferred to the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship.
A U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said special operations forces had tried to approach the lifeboat earlier in the standoff, but the pirates had fired at them.
A fourth pirate who surrendered before the end of the standoff was aboard the Bainbridge when Phillips was freed.
The pirate had sought medical treatment for a stab wound to the hand, inflicted by a member of the Maersk Alabama's crew when the gang tried to hijack the ship, the official said.
The pirate was being transferred to the Boxer.
HOW WERE SEA CONDITIONS AT THE TIME?
Conditions were deteriorating and the USS Bainbridge was towing the lifeboat in search of calmer waters at the time of the incident. The lifeboat was about 80 to 100 feet away from the Bainbridge when the Navy SEALs opened fire on the pirates.
The lifeboat was about 20 miles off the coast of Somalia when the standoff ended. U.S. military officials were determined to prevent the lifeboat from reaching the Somali shore.
WHAT IS PHILLIPS' CONDITION?
Phillips is in good health, Gortney said. The former hostage declined an offer of food after his rescue and has called home. President Barack Obama also called the Boxer to speak to him.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE FOURTH PIRATE?
The Navy says it is working with the U.S. Department of Justice to determine how to hold the pirate accountable for his crimes. He could be prosecuted in the United States or in Kenya, Gortney said.
WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE INCIDENT?
U.S. officials insist they did not want the stand-off to end violently. Somali pirates have generally not harmed their hostages and officials fear they could now act more violently.
"This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it," Gortney told reporters at the Pentagon on a conference call from his headquarters in Bahrain.
(Reporting by Andrew Gray, Editing by Stacey Joyce)